My desire to draw these blog posts back to a more process philosophy, “Whiteheadian” orientation keeps getting hijacked by current events. But in this particular instance, the Whitehead connection is not entirely lost. That is because Alfred North Whitehead was not only a beloved educator and professor, but a highly respected administrator at London University, where he finished his career as a specifically British academician. Many of Whitehead’s most important essays on education are collected in the volume The Aims of Education. But one of the things not discussed in great detail in that collection is the administration of higher education.
In Whitehead’s case, this is most likely due to the fact that when and where he came up through university, when and where he taught, did his research, and performed his administrative tasks, it was in a university system with roots that stretched back to the early medieval times, and that was present at the birth of the modern university in the late 18th C. Facing forced retirement from the English university system, Whitehead (who was not ready to retire) came to the U.S., where he was confronted by a very different system of administration. Over a century ago (and years before Whitehead arrived) Thorstein Veblen was condemning the well-established forces that were trying to mutilate the comparatively nascent American system of higher-education into a profit-stream oriented business. So Whitehead’s educational writings never had much chance to address the trends, as the very thought of them was completely alien to his thinking, and his thinking was oriented toward the most significant development in speculative philosophy of the last 2300 years.
Which is its own kind of pity, as we are now at a place far worse than Veblen ever imagined, or Whitehead ever faced. With this as my preface, let me say a few words about Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (“SIUC”), the place where higher-ed comes to die. Obviously, what I say here is my opinion and should not be accepted uncritically (or even critically) as objective fact. I will, however, provide links in the following to help substantiate those opinions.
Let me begin with a few words about university administrative organization. Those words are: IT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE. University administrative organization makes the rules of cricket look like checkers. (And, for the record, cricket makes no fucking sense either.) You have presidents and vice-presidents, chancellors and vice-chancellors; there are provosts and deans, and only the latter have anything like a readily discernible role in the structure of administration. (Deans are one step above departments and departmental heads, helping organize those departments into larger, more vague and generic educational units, such as schools of humanities, or engineering, or agriculture, or science. But then you also have a layer of “assistant” deans who, evidently, “assist”, but who are not “administrative assistants”, who are really the ones doing all of the daily “trench work” of managing the department, really do not like to be called “secretaries,” and whom you never want to piss off.)
But there is this position of “Chancellor.” It is unclear what a Chancellor does, which is unsurprising since the Chancellor is appointed by the board of trustees.
Oh, I forgot to mention the trustees. These are the people, often with a less than ideal background in actual education (though they will often hold advanced degrees), who nevertheless determine how the university’s money will ultimately be managed and spent. So, yeah … “business” people …
Anyway, Chancellor’s apparently provide a “vision” for the university. A “vision” that was (presumably) pre-approved (at least implicitly) by the trustees (the “business” people.) And herein is where the other part of the Chancellor’s role comes in: the anxiety, angst, disruption, misdirection, fury, and total chaos. That, anyway, appears to be the function of a Chancellor at SIUC. Because that is certainly what Chancellors have brought to SIUC over the last 15 – 20 years, and there have been a surprisingly large number of them in that period, who were especially good at the disruption and chaos part. Indeed, in the past twenty years, SIUC has had 11 chancellors; this includes the interim chancellors who had to take over when the official chancellor, um, “left suddenly.”
A number of these official chancellors have, notably, come from engineering background, while others have had more singularly business orientations in their education and background. And herein lies the problem: Higher-education is NOT a business, education is NOT a commodity, students are NOT customers, and the professoriate is NOT (supposed to be) an arbitrary collection of at-will hires. But this is precisely the model – the “vision” – that the last 20 years of trustee appointed chancellors has been aggressively pushing down the throats of the SIUC community.
Highest on the list of the trustees and their appointed representatives (and, yes I place greatest blame for this on the trustees) is the elimination of shared governance, the contribution of faculty to the administration of the university. This was a major sticking point in contract negotiations that led to the faculty strike of 2011.i Today, the chancellor wants to effectively destroy all academic departments (which are run by a chair who is elected from the department’s faculty.) This will be done by disolving all departments, returning the chairs to their positions as regular professors, while their jobs will be taken over by professional administrators, bureaucrats who will, by necessity, have to be new hires (since no such persons currently work for the university) and who will (by almost equal necessity) have absolutely no grasp of the unique features of the department they are now charged with managing, since such features are dependent on the academic discipline and the individuals involved. The chancellor characterizes this massive contribution to administrative bloat as “streamlining.” (In case you don’t already know, the massive increases in university costs are not due to professor salaries; they are due to unbridled spending on sports and the explosive, bloating expansion of administration.)
Meanwhile, graduate students will no longer be able to take on any of the primary teaching duties that they are allowed and encouraged to do now. This means that, if they (against all reason) choose to waste their time and precious education dollars at SIUC, their final degrees will be entirely worthless: lacking any teaching experience, they will be absolutely unhirable (even if the academic job market was desperate for new hires, which it most certainly is not.)
Finally, all teaching will be taken over by professors which, besides eliminating any time or space for research (SIUC is supposed to be a research university, you know), is also patently illegal. Contracts, you see, are legal documents, and just because you are so clueless about higher-education as to imagine it is no different from managing a McDonald’s franchise, it still does not mean you get to disregard such legalities on a whim. Professors at SIUC have the contractually guaranteed teaching load of 2/2 (that’s two classes each semester), which then also gives them time to do their research, work on their publications, serve on various committees, and act as mentors and advisors to their grad students. Well, this latter task will disappear anyway, along with the graduate students, since why would any of them stick around after the chancellor reduces their degrees to something less valuable than used toilet paper?
All this, the chancellor assures us in the community, will turn SIUC into an undergraduate magnet. (The university has, in fact, been hemorrhaging undergrad enrollment for many years now.) One scarcely knows how to react to such reality-vacuous wishful thinking. Are high school seniors supposed to be sitting around and saying, “Yes! I want to go to SIUC because their ‘streamlined’ administration ensures that academic disciplines are handled by professional paper pushers who are altogether lacking in even a pretense of insight into the disciplines they are supposedly managing! I want to go somewhere that disregards law and responsibility in terms of a “business model” that has no possible relationship to reality, and where the best professors available have all been beat down into caviling factory workers! Why, a degree from SIUC will be almost as valuable as one in, ‘typewriter maintenance at the Rocko-Clubbo school for women’!”
Further discussions of the chancellor’s “vision” can be found here:
The chancellor’s “vision”:
Two different news reports:
iThe administration wanted the right to declare “financial exigency” – a situation in which tenured faculty can be released without any “due process” procedure to demonstrate cause – without ever having to open their books and actually show that such exigency existed. This would render tenure and shared governance meaningless, since any faculty member who failed to blindly toe the administration’s line could be singled out for dismissal during an arbitrarily declared situation of financial exigency.